Last Update 12/28/10   

Closed Circuit by William Haggard, Penguin, 1960  

Haggard’s earlier books struck me as clumsy but this one is actually quite good.  It involves a complicated intersection of connivances involving British descended property owners in a mythical South American country, possibly based on what was then British Guiana, whose autocratic government is on shaky ground.  One of those transplanted English is in Britain trying to consummate a bribe to his own government, unaware that the embassy official he is dealing with is secretly a member of the underground.  That worthy’s cover has recently been blown and there is a plot to assassinate him.  Meanwhile, the first man – whose wife is having an affair with a British diplomat – has fallen in love with another woman, and his wife’s lover has decided to murder him in order to acquire access to the family fortune.    Much more convincing than the earlier novels. 12/29/10

Thieves! by Hannan Dennison, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23927-8

Stay Tuned for Murder by Mary Kennedy, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23235-9

New titles in series both of which I've enjoyed in the past.  Dennison's protagonist is Vicky Hill, investigative reporter, who this time around gets involved with a serious of thefts from a small English town at just about the time a band of gypsies camps nearby.  Obviously that makes them the prime suspect in the eyes of the locals, who can't believe one of their own number could be a criminal, which also makes it obvious to the reader that things are not what they appear to be. Then a body turns up, not obviously a murder victim, and only Vicky's instincts prevent the crime from going unpunished.  There's a bit of melodrama toward the end but a good bit of detection as well.  A rewarding read.  I've only read one previous Mary Kennedy, who heroine is a radio talk show psychologist. For some reason she has a hokey medium on her show who subsequently makes a deadly prediction that comes true. More murder ensues involving the opening of a time capsule, long hidden secrets, and even a touch of creepiness.  This one is quite good.  12/16/10

The Venetian Blind by William Haggard, Signet, 1959   

Haggard’s third spy novel brings back Colonel Russell, head of British security, and makes use of another SF ploy.  British scientists have discovered antigravity but details of the very secret project are being leaked.  Could it be some minor employee or is it the rich industrialist Gervas Leat himself?  The story is told mostly from the point of view of the man tapped to replace Russell, who is planning to retire within a few months, who knows Leat and some of the other principles personally. The author’s scientific illiteracy shows.  A potentially major advance can be summed up in two equations which are to be offered as a false lead to smoke out the traitor.  And an engineer cannot look at two equations and declare that a project is not feasible. Nor is his depiction of British intelligence realistic.  They are, for example, too much the gentlemen to note Leat’s sexual liaisons in their files, information which in fact would be very significant in their investigation. And their ploy is ridiculously implausible.  State secrets do not get sent by mail to private individuals, not even by special messenger. And in the normal course of things, the man they were investigating would not have access to the letter in any case, which is exactly what happens, although it does set up a situation by which he learns that Leat has been sleeping with his wife.  This suits the author’s convenience but it’s just not plausible. This all gets mixed up with a not very believable story that Leat’s stepdaughter blames him for her mother’s suicide and wants vengeance, which she has deferred for more than a decade. 12/3/10

You Better Knot Die by Betty Hechtman, Berkley, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23693-2  

Betty Hechtman is one of the cosy mystery authors I find palatable – even if she does include recipes at the end of the book.  This one features the crochet club again, and is set during the Christmas holidays. Our protagonist also works in a bookstore, which is another reason I follow this series, and she’s preparing for a big affair in which a pseudonymous author is about to reveal his true identity.  That’s tied in to the more immediate mystery, which is the disappearance of a neighbor who left a suicide note and is presumed to have jumped into the ocean, hence the missing body.  But amateur sleuths and readers both know that this is usually the sign of a concealed murder, and we’re off to the races.  The usual cliché plot development of the killer targeting our nosy investigator, but I’ve almost become resigned to the inevitability of this. 11/30/10

The Telemann Touch by William Haggard, Signet, 1958  

Haggard’s second novel of international intrigue was probably written with the Falkland Islands in mind.  England has a shaky claim to the island of St. Cree, but discovery of oil reserves there has made the tiny area very valuable.  The other claimant is a South American dictatorship which has hired Telemann, an accomplished saboteur and assassin, to stir up the native help and cause an incident which will lead to a change in ownership.  Telemann early confronts David Carr, the man in charge of the oil development project, and the two instinctively like one another, complicating their rivalry. Although much better than Haggard’s first novel, it has some very shaky anthropological aspects that probably result from the author’s racial prejudice. It is taken as a given that the Native American workers are lazy, unintelligent, and even “detestable.”  The persistent racism ruins the otherwise exciting final third when the two men have their ultimate battle. 11/23/10

A Killer Crop by Sheila Connolly, Berkley, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23826-4

The Diva Cooks a Goose by Krista Davis, Berkley, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23825-7 3921-22 

The latest titles in two cosy series which I follow despite the inclusion of recipes in every book.  The first is the better of the two, following the adventures of a woman who runs a professional apple orchard when she isn’t solving murders.  This time the prime suspect is her own mother, who made a mysterious visit and who is obviously keeping secrets.  When one of the mother’s friends is murdered, our protagonist has to solve the crime to keep her mother out of jail.  Although this follows the standard formula, the author is considerably better than most of her contemporaries and there is actually substance to the story rather than the more common froth.  The second series has seemed to me uneven in the past, but is still generally better written than most.  This time it’s a Christmas setting and it starts off with someone stealing a load of unopened presents.  One of the characters has taken up with a young woman very quickly following his wife’s mysterious death, which suggests murder, but it’s the young woman who turns up dead shortly thereafter and, as in the Connolly title, our protagonist’s relatives are among the suspects.  About average for this series, but not as good as the Connolly. 11/21/10

Slow Burner by William Haggard, Signet, 1958  

This was, I believe, the debut appearance of Colonel Charles Russell, head of a British spy agency in a series of very short suspense novels.  The title refers to a revolutionary kind of nuclear power – and also a quite implausible one – which the British have developed but which someone has apparently stolen the use of since the telltale epsilon rays are being emitted from the cottage of a kept woman in a nondescript suburb.  Even though we are told that these rays can be fatal, the British government has to resort to hiring a civilian to burgle the woman’s house rather than just cordon off the area and search it, which made no sense to me whatsoever.  Most of the novel concerns the rivalries and animosities among the senior staff with only passing reference to the supposed security breach, which is revealed to be an electronic machine that mimics epsilon rays rather than actually creating them, an absurdity that should have been apparent even in the 1950s.  There are other problems.  The device is considered a blind to cover the defection of a scientist, but that makes no sense.  The man in charge of the project is nearly run down in an obvious murder attempt, but Russell dismisses this as police business of no interest to security.  Then one of the ministers has a nervous breakdown and plans to sabotage a cylinder of the special energy source – which is carried around in the trunk of a car! – in order to kill his rival. A very inauspicious start to what turned out to be a fairly lengthy and successful writing career. 11/18/10

Mistletoe & Mayhem by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 2010, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-23690-1

A Pennyfoot Hotel mystery timed to coincide, more or less, with the Christmas holiday.  As usual, a variety of unusual characters show up to stay through the holidays including one reclusive man who becomes the prime suspect, according to popular opinion, when one of the servants is murdered, perhaps only the latest in a series of brutal killings.  So naturally the reader knows the man is innocent and someone else from the assembled group is responsible. Throw in a kidnapped child and you have the formula for another successful novel in this series.  The other uses an understated style that sometimes leaves me feeling that I’ve missed some of the texture I’m used to in a mystery, but her story lines are always clever and entertaining. 11/15/10 

The Lies That Bind by Kate Carlisle, Obsidian, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23169-7 

I’m a pushover for a bookstore related murder mystery so I’ve read each new title in this series promptly.  Our book peddling protagonist travels to the West Coast to teach a short course in bookbinding, but finds herself drawn into the circle of an abusive administrator whose staff is on the verge of open revolt.  No surprise who shows up dead in this one, and there are plenty of viable suspects.  The police can’t solve the case but our book expert can, naturally, and almost equally naturally she finds herself targeted for elimination when she gets too close.  This latter plot element has begun to irritate me, actually, and it’s often an excuse for an author not to really work out the crime but to have the truth revealed to rather than uncovered by the detective.  Carlisle avoids that trap but I still felt mildly unhappy with the closing chapters. 11/15/10

An Uplifting Murder by Elaine Viets, Obsidian, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23170-3 

Latest in the Secret Shopper mystery series. Viets has two series running at the moment and while I prefer the Dead End Job books, this set is almost as good.  Her mundane target this time is a chain of clothing stores, during the course of which investigation she runs into an old acquaintance from her high school days, and finds a second murdered in a restroom in the same neighborhood.  This is stretching coincidence a bit far, but most mysteries are based at least in part on a confluence of unlikely events, so I wasn’t too bothered. The mutual connection makes old acquaintance number one a serious suspect – the usual sign that she’s innocent – so our heroine must explore the past of the victim to find out who is really responsible.  Snappy dialogue and a likeable character separate this one from the pack of similar cosies.  On the other hand, do we really need an appendix with tips on how to shop for a bra? 11/11/10

Green Eyes by Maxwell Grant, 1932  

A man is stabbed to death on a train just after writing a letter about which he was very nervous.  The letter itself is also missing. His last cryptic words include a reference to “green eyes.”   Another man visits his empty hotel room, where he escapes murder at the hands of a sinister Oriental, and whom we subsequently learn is the Shadow.  One of the more amusing lines is when we are told that because of their psychology, Chinese will never submit to a centralized government. A prominent villain is Ling Soo, a Fu Manchu clone who plots a takeover of the United States. Ling Soo is head of the Wu-Fan, which is in opposition to the Tongs.  Although the Wu-Fan are ostensibly peaceful, a government agent decides to infiltrate one of their meetings to discover what is really going on.  Although a bit simpleminded at times, this is one of the better Shadow adventures, with an interesting plot and relatively plausible action sequences. 11/8/10

One Grave Less by Beverly Connor, Obsidian, 2010 $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23180-2

I enjoy the Diane Fallon series so much that I automatically jump any new title to the top of the pile as soon as it shows up.  I did that with this one, despite the ungrammatical title.  It should be One Grave Fewer.  You don't use "less" when talking about discrete units.  Less grain, fewer grains.  Anyway, as usual I ended up reading this in one long sitting, caught up almost immediately.  There are actually two alternate stories here.  The first involves a young woman kidnapped in South America who makes a perilous journey to freedom accompanied by a young girl who turns out to be Fallon's adopted daughter, believed dead throughout the earlier volumes in the series.  This alternates with Fallon's discovery that someone is trying to ruin her reputation by sending anonymous emails and false news tips, which eventually escalates into assaults on her house by paramilitary forces hired to keep her and some of her former co-workers from realizing the truth about the massacre of their friends in South America years earlier.  Both stories are much more action oriented than usual for this series.  Fallon's adventures are the more interesting, including a mysterious dead man whose body is snatched by parties unknown, a drowning, and other puzzles to be worked out.  The second story depends a bit too much on coincidence for me to completely buy it.  They converge during the final chapters for a violent confrontation that includes a tornado.  More adventure than mystery this time, and perhaps a bit over the top - although I did enjoy the giant anaconda in the truck bed.  11/6/10

Whisper of Evil by Rosemary Gatenby, Dodd Mead, 1978 

The last book in my stack of Gatenby novels is pretty minor.  The protagonist arrives early to meet her husband in Mexico and finds him with another woman.  Two local men begin following her, and another mysterious figure attempts to kill her and does kill one of the Mexicans.  Is it her cousin, with whom she has feuded since childhood.  Or her other cousin’s apparently fortune hunting husband?  Or is it her own husband, who wants to inherit her fortune before she divorces him?  Or is it a case of mistaken identity? This falls somewhere between murder mystery and woman in jeopardy.  Not badly done but it felt like much of the texture was missing.  The protagonist is too  naïve, her husband too transparently a cad, and why didn’t she just fly back home after the first murder attempt?  Her ability to recover from the discovery that her beloved husband is unfaithful and then get engaged to a man she formerly disliked in the span of a couple of days is also terribly implausible. 11/4/10

Nightmare Chrysalis by Rosemary Gatenby, Jove, 1977  

Gatenby returns to more conventional mystery forms in this generally effective novel.  The protagonist is a reclusive young man who gets involved with an amateur theater company, only to become prime suspect when a young girl is raped and murdered.  The evidence against him is circumstantial, but the police are particularly vindictive because the officer in charge of the case dislikes him personally.  There are a few nicely done diversions and the murderer was actually the fourth on my list, so I wasn’t even close.  My problem with this one is that the author really screws up the police procedure.  For one thing, in a murder case the family of the victim cannot refuse to allow an autopsy.  For another, when a police officer is one of the potential suspects in a murder, they would certainly not make him the chief investigating officer.  Some of the interactions among the characters were unconvincing as well. The title makes no sense.10/29/10

The Third Identity by Rosemary Gatenby, Dodd Mead, 1979  

My latest excursion into the work of Rosemary Gatenby is what I think was her last novel, and also her longest.  A man with only hazy memories of his childhood is convicted of murder after films of a killer who is clearly his double surface.  Clearly he is being framed and naturally my initial suspicion was that the real killer was the brother whom he vaguely remembers.  So how was the murder contrived and for what reason, and how did the conspirators so neatly trap our protagonist into being the fall guy?  The answers to these questions may be revealed while he serves his sentence in a high security prison.  An intriguing mystery that goes on a bit too long, and I have an aversion to prison stories so I struggled to get through the middle third of the novel. 10/24/10

Never-Ending Snake by Aimee & David Thurlo, Forge, 2010, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2450-4  

I enjoyed the first book I read in this series of detective stories set on an Indian reservation, Coyote’s Wife, but I thought this one slipped a bit.  Ella Clah, our protagonist, returns to the reservation just in time to get caught in the middle of a firefight when unknown assailants attack the airfield.  The motive for the assault is unclear but appears to involve tensions among the Navajo clans about land use and other issues.  Ella has to investigate this while also sorting out a number of domestic problems involving her boyfriend and her daughter, all of which get tangled up with the main plot.  I think this may have been a bit too busy for me or I just wasn’t in the right mood because it felt like it jumped around too much.  It was still good enough to finish in a single sitting, but I finished it with a vague sense of disappointment. 10/20/10

Deadly Relations by Rosemary Gatenby, Morrow, 1970  

Steve Wylie has a brief affair with an incognito married woman hiding from her husband, but she disappears.  When he tries to find her, he learns that she has – apparently – been killed by someone who planted a bomb aimed at her husband.  But things are not as they appear.  As he pursues his own private investigation, Wylie discovers that his own life is in danger.  A standard mystery plot with some unexpected twists and turns, but this was one of Gatenby’s earlier books and it lacks some of the texture that made her later work more memorable.  And despite the occasional surprise, the main plot is perhaps a bit too predictable.  Not bad, certainly, but nothing out of the ordinary. 10/20/10

A Marked Man by Barbara Hamilton, Berkley, 2010, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-23708-3  

The first in this series – which features Abigail Adams as detective – was surprisingly good, given by predilection to avoid historically based mystery novels.  It’s set a few weeks after the Boston Tea Party and a local man has been arrested for the murder of a British diplomat.  Was it an assassination or simple murder?  The accused was vying for the same woman’s hand in marriage, but there were also reasons for both he and others to want the man dead for political reasons. In due course we and Abigail learn that the dead man had even more enemies than we expected, but Abigail finds herself promoted to the position of potential next victim.  This one was okay but I didn’t think it was up to the standard set by its predecessor. 10/15/10

Hidden Death by Maxwell Grant, 1932  

This Shadow novel does not start well.  The commissioner of police decides that there is no such person despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary – to say nothing of his radio program. It picks up a bit after that. Our recurring police detective, Joe Cardona, is given a psychologist as a temporary unofficial partner while investigating the murder of an inventor, followed by a mysterious note to the police. Hours later another man is found poisoned and the next day the third victim is found and the Shadow is nearly apprehended at the scene by the police. There’s actually some police procedural aspects, although they’re mostly bogus.  The Shadow uses multiple impersonations as well as his ability to become virtually invisible in this one.  There are the usual cartoon gangsters, determined this time to trap and kill the Shadow, and naturally they fail.  The solution is clever, though not entirely plausible, and quite a departure from the usual in this series. 10/10/10

The Fugitive Affair by Rosemary Gatenby, Dodd Mead, 1976 

My third excursion into the suspense novels of Rosemary Gatenby was a considerable letdown.  The first half of this relatively short thriller was okay.  The protagonist is prevailed upon to travel to Montreal in an attempt to convince the fugitive son of a prominent businessman to come back and face the charges against him.  Unfortunately, after some minor subterfuge, the fugitive is shot by persons unknown.  He is part of a cell of agitators who want the violent overthrow of the US government, he opposes their policy of assassination, and there is also some question as to whether his uncle may have hired a hitman.  The second half falls to pieces as our hero is briefly detained by the revolutionaries, escapes, attempts to thwart their assassination plot – but only partly succeeds, and discovers the truth about his friend’s murder.  The story just wanders all over the place and the scenes among the revolutionaries suggest that Gatenby didn’t really know the subject at all because they’re unconvincing, simplistic, and contradictory.  Possibly her worst book, although I have a few more to read. 10/9/10

Season of Danger by Rosemary Gatenby, Jove, 1974 

My second sampling of this author is even better than the first.  The protagonist is a magazine writer who receives a cryptic message from a famous and reclusive writer which leads him to suspect that the man and his sister have somehow been taken hostage by their security staff in a plot to steal his fortune.  He makes some quiet inquiries which soon result in the murder of a neighbor, although he has nothing which he can take to the police.  I have to quibble here.  When a prominent journalist, a noted editor, and a professional illustrator – all of whom have spotless reputations – suspect that there is a hostage situation, the police would certainly investigate. It wouldn’t be that difficult to insist upon interviewing the man without his guards present. And the FBI, which refuses to get involved because no obvious crime has been committed would have jurisdiction because the hostage situation crossed state, and eventually international lines.  Gatenby does throw in some things to make this seem murky but I wasn’t convinced.  Nonetheless, the story is remarkably suspenseful even after we know approximately what’s going on, because we don’t know everything that’s going on and there are some surprises waiting.  I’ll be reading more of Gatenby. 10/3/10

Dirty Rotten Tendrils by Kate Collins, Obsidian, 2010, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23152-9  

Latest in a series about a flower shop owner who solves mysteries.  The latest involves a very popular though nasty singer who has arrived with a lawyer among his retinue because he is being sued by a former songwriting partner.  Motive there seems pretty obvious, so I immediately suspected it. But to my surprise it’s the lawyer who shows up dead, and the opposing lawyer who is a prime suspect.  Since he’s the friend of the protagonist, the link is complete, but the investigation will take some surprising turns.  This is the kind of series I probably shouldn’t like, but I’ve enjoyed most of the books in this particular series, including this one, enough to keep reading them. 10/1/10

Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden, Obsidian, 2010, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23109-3

The author’s name is new to me but since the book is copyrighted by the publisher, I suspect it’s a house name. The protagonist/detective is secretary of the local PTA when murder changes her agenda. She also runs a bookstore, which is what finally made me decide to read it.  When the local principal is murdered, a blog begins insinuating who might be responsible – and I suspect that in the real world the blogger would be in big legal trouble – but that stirs community passions even further. The melodramatic ending didn’t really work for me, but the writing in general was superior to most similar books I’ve read recently.  If I’m right that this is a house name, I’m very curious about who the author might really be.  UPDATE: A friend reports that Laura Alden is a real person so my speculation was wrong.  I find it surprising the book isn't copyrighted in her name.  10/1/10

A Truth for a Truth by Emilie Richards, Berkley, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23605-5

Fundraising the Dead by Sheila Connolly, Berkley, 2010, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23744-1 

A couple of above average cosy mysteries here.  My previous experience with Richards was neither particularly good nor bad and I’ve enjoyed both of the books I’d read by Connolly in her apple orchard related series.  The Richards continues the adventures of the adventures of Aggie Sloan-Wilcox, a minister’s wife who fights crime in her spare time.  A retired minister dies unexpectedly and an autopsy proves murder, with the new widow as suspect number one.  But Aggie discovers that the dearly departed minister had more than a few enemies among his former congregation, and his own past is not as spotless as it might appear.  A fairly intriguing puzzle and a pretty good delivery system for the story.  The Connolly was even better – and I loved the title.  The protagonist – first in a new series – is a fundraiser who works for museums.  There is trouble involving the disappearance of some historical papers – including letters written by George Washington – and it’s obvious that a serious investigation is inevitable.  Before that can happen, the head archivist is found murdered and the historical society president, whom our protagonist happens to be romantically involved with, is oddly reluctant to pursue the issue beyond what the police require.  Formulaic, like most mysteries, and I found the ending to be a bit of a letdown, but I very much enjoyed the trip that led me to it. 9/22/10

The Blackmail Ring by Maxwell Grant, 1932  

For a change, the Shadow appears in the opening paragraph of this adventure.  There’s a gunfight in Paris before we even have an idea what the story is going to be about, with the Shadow dispatching a small army of thugs.  Then we’re back in the US where a new character witnesses a brutal murder. The witness stumbles into the house owned by the people who orchestrated the murder and realizes that he has been mistaken for someone else. Meanwhile the original intended victim has been approached by Harry Vincent, one of the Shadow’s minions. Unfortunately, Vincent finds his dead body a short while later. There’s more mystery than usual in this one and we don’t really know what’s going on until half way through the novel. The murder of a wealthy man initially seems unrelated, but not for long. More derring do on the part of the minions makes up the bulk of the second half before the Shadow intercedes for the climax.  Slightly above average for the series. 9/19/10

The Second Death of Goodluck Tinabu by Michael Stanley, Harper, 2009, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-06-125249-5

The second adventure of David Kubu Tengu of Botswana is even better than the first.  Two men are mysteriously murdered at a small resort, and the prime suspect - who was traveling under a false name, disappeared shortly after the murder, and is known to be wanted by the police in neighboring Zimbabwe - had disappeared, but is clearly connected to some sort of criminal organization, possibly drug related.  One of the dead men turns out to be a South African policeman working undercover, while the man of the title is identified as someone who "died" thirty years earlier during the Rhodesian/Zimbabwe civil war.  Others at the resort - really just a camp - also have connections including two journalist sisters who are less than candid about their knowledge of the dead man, the camp's proprietor, who survived various unpleasant incidents during the aforesaid war, and a supposedly innocent bird watcher, who is himself murdered shortly thereafter.  Thugs beat up some of the other people involved and someone tries to bribe Bengu into turning over the contents of a briefcase owned by the dead man, unaware that it was empty when confiscated.  A convincing and entertaining police procedural with lots of local color, just enough mystery to keep us guessing, and a host of fascinating characters.  I hope to see many more in this series in the future.  9/17/10

Hanged for a Sheep by Rosemary Gatenby, Jove, 1973 

I picked up a handful of this author’s mysteries back when they first came out but never got around to reading them.  Sampling this one now, it depresses me even further how badly the mystery genre has deteriorated since then.  Gatenby was never a major figure but she constructs, writes, and resolves her mystery better than 90% of the current crop of cosy authors.  This one involves one of the standard mystery plots.  The protagonist is unhappily married to a woman who has developed paranoia in middle age, egged on by unfounded rumors propagated in the community to the effect that her husband has been carrying on with his secretary.  When his wife is murdered, he is obviously the chief suspect, and that makes his custody battle for his adopted daughter even more shaky.  Suspects abound but I was caught flat footed when he makes a good case for one of the characters that I never suspected, although that turns out to be a red herring.  There is a very mild cheat involving the real killer – whose motive we are led to believe is impossible – but otherwise it’s quite good and has a bit of a twist at the end.  One quibble.  Both murders take place inside a house so why does the cover depict a body in a birch forest? 9/15/10

The Crime Cult by Maxwell Grant, 1932  

A private detective investigating the disappearance of a young man is strangled in a darkened house and his body disposed of. Using completely unnecessary secret codes for their telephone conversations, some of the Shadow’s minions are called together to investigate. The Shadow himself does his usual eavesdropping in the dark, impersonations, and other tricks to get a line on what’s going on.  A host of cartoon character mobsters get fooled in the process. Meanwhile a young woman who is in love with the missing man is told that her own uncle is responsible for the man’s death. The police think they’ve arrested the killer, but it’s obvious that they’re wrong. Turns out there’s an oriental cult making human sacrifices. A rather routine adventure with the usual captures and escapes. 9/13/10

Double Z by Maxwell Grant, 1932

Time for some more pulp fiction.  This is a Shadow novel, and as often is the case, one with an implausible premise.  Double Z is a feared and mysterious killer who has sent a judge into self imposed exile and commits various murders – always warning the police in advance – in an effort to frighten the judge.  The judge also knows the identity of the killer and tells a reporter, who is cut off in mid-sentence as he is about to tell his editor.  That happens a lot in pulp fiction.  Another murder follows and we are led to suspect that Double Z is in league with Bolshevists against the Fascists. The Shadow recruits another suicidal man to help him discover the culprit’s true identity while some of the police believe he is behind the killings.  The Shadow’s henchman fall into a trap but he escapes and eventually rescues them. A fairly standard story which seemed to me somewhat better written than most of the previous ones. 9/10/10

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley, Headline, 2008

This first novel, a collaborative pseudonym, was recommended to me because I like mysteries set in Africa.  It is in fact set in Botswana and introduces David "Kubu" Bengu, an overweight but brilliant detective sort of in the tradition of Gideon Fell and Rex Stout, except that this is a police procedural rather than an old fashioned detective story.  The unidentified body of a white man is found in the desert just about the same time an inquisitive geologist disappears from a controversial diamond mine.  Scandal is anathema to the large conglomerate involved, which is about to undergo a transition of management as the son and daughter of the late founder have come of age and are about to assert themselves.  Kubu is looking into both cases and he suspects that the common element is more than a coincidence, and he's soon involved in yet another murder, is assaulted himself, and has to travel to South Africa to find the last piece of the puzzle.  Although it's pretty obvious in general what is going on, the details and interrelationships are sufficiently confusing to keep us guessing even though we see the story from multiple viewpoints.  The setting is evoked quite colorfully, the characters are interesting and realistic, and in this fairly longish crime novel goes quite quickly.  There's an American edition from Harper, and a second adventure which I have already ordered.  9/9/10

The Queen's Jewels by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain, Obsidian, 2010, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-451-23126-0

The Chocolate Pirate Plot by Joanna Carl, Obsidian, 2010, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-451-23127-7

Although these two novels are unrelated, they both arrived the same day and it happened to be one of those days when I was looking for something light and fluffy to balance the more serious non-fiction I'd just finished.   The first is a spinoff from Murder She Wrote, and I've enjoyed the previous few of this series that I've read.  Most of the time the solution is driven by thought and experiment rather than dumb luck, good or bad, which characterizes the majority of recent cosies.  Jessica is off to England to take a voyage on the Queen Mary 2, but someone has committed murder and jewelry theft, and obviously the culprit is going to be one of those aboard the ship. Naturally she suspects something and follows up with her usual loveable nosiness and solves the case after a few low key but entertaining thrills.  Liked this one quite a bit. 

The second title is one of those that announces a special addition - in this case an assortment of "tasty chocolate trivia", and I was tempted to put it aside.  But that meant tackling a weighty biography of Oscar Wilde, and I'd mildly enjoyed the one previous book I'd read by the author, so I decided to give it a try.  It's also quite short.  Pirate fever has ensconced itself and our protagonist is making hay making and selling chocolate treasure chests and such.  Meanwhile a group of costumed mystery people have been making faux pirate attacks on local pleasure boats, which most people take in good spirit until a body turns up in the lake. This one seemed much more serious in tone than the earlier one I'd read, and there is a good balance between fortuitous circumstances and actual investigation.  So I liked this one - but I didn't read the chocolate trivia.  9/6/10

Deadly Daggers by Joyce and Jim Lavene, Berkley, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23644-4 

I’ve sampled more than one series by this husband and wife writing team and although none of them have made me run around pressing the book on other people, I’ve enjoyed each of them.   This one is set against the backdrop of a medieval recreation, Renaissance Faire, where our protagonist is learning the art of sword making when her mentor’s ex-boyfriend turns up dead.  She also has to deal with her own boyfriend’s brother, who wants him to abandon her for a more suitable lover.  Although the story in this one isn’t bad, I was rather disappointed that the crime is solved more through the usual lazy device of having the killer decide to eliminate the nosey investigator rather than through any actual detection, although there’s a bit of that as well.  About average for the authors. 8/27/10

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace by Suzanne Arruda, Obsidian, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-0-451-23117-8  

This period mystery series, set in early 20th Century Africa, has flirted with strong romantic elements but this time has a more specifically detective story orientation.  The protagonist is Jade del Cameron, a more or less fashionable British lady whose love interest is absent as this story unfolds.  But she receives a mysterious letter, purportedly from her late fiancé, which may or may not be connected to the deaths of two men in the present, one eaten – as the title suggests – by a crocodile. An old enemy returns as well to stir the pot to a roiling boil. The boyfriend shows up in time for the exciting revelations in the closing chapters.  One of the better in this series and I’m a pushover for a murder mystery with an African setting. 8/23/10

Scoop to Kill by Wendy Lyn Watson, Obsidian, 2010, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23076-8  

I almost passed this one by since the cover announced that recipes were included, but as a gesture of tolerance I read it anyway.  After all, the recipes are all about ice cream; who could complain about that?  The protagonist runs an ice cream shop and she gets involved with a double murder, one victim of which had previously accused the other victim of sexual harassment.  The evocation of the cut-throat nature of college faculty and student politics is fairly convincing, and the mystery itself is reasonably engrossing, and if the tone had been a little more serious and the detective a bit more cerebral about figuring things out, I might have liked this one a lot more.  As it stands, it was fine, but nothing I’d go out of the way to recommend. 8/23/10

The Spider's Web by Margaret Coel, Berkley, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23660-4

The latest from Margaret Coel is an enthralling thriller but the mystery element falls pretty flat.  A young man is killed and his clearly not entirely sane girlfriend from off the reservation is found battered beside his body.   Although she's a suspect, there is no gun around and no residue on her hands, and coupled with her own wounds she seems out of the running.  She identifies two men who were involved in a burglary operation with the dead man, although they claim to be innocent, despite acting very guilty. A few subsidiary characters as well as the dead man's ex-girlfriend combine to stir the mix.  The detectives - although they really aren't - are the recurring pair of Father John and Lawyer Vicky, although they don't see eye to eye on the case.  Then the two fugitives are found shot to death and their theories are blown out of the water.  Considerable action and suspense, but the mystery doesn't hold up.  SPOILER ALERT.  The real murderer of the two men is obvious simply because there are no other candidates and I was pretty sure about the solution to the first killing as well, subsequently confirmed.  And the double ending is doubly unsatisfactory.  One killer acts in a totally illogical fashion, revealing his identity by attempting another murder after the bodies of his scapegoats have already been found.  The other killer doesn't get caught at all.  Coel usually does much better than this.  8/12/10

Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23446-4  

Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the throne of England, is back for a new escapade.  This time she’s sent to Transylvania to represent the royal family at the marriage of the Prince of Romania.  His bride to be was at a private school with Georgiana as a child, although the two did not get along, and I was immediately suspicious in her motives for specifically requesting our heroine’s presence. She is accompanied by an accident prone maid named Queenie and a snobbish older woman which makes the trip even more fretful.  They arrive at a spooky old castle with hints of vampires and other dire creatures, where one of the guests is poisoned and the mystery must be solved to avoid ruining the wedding.  Lots of fun and close to being the best in the series. 8/8/10

The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23445-7

Albert at least temporarily abandons her other three series to launch this new and, for me anyway, less interesting one, squarely in the pattern of the modern cozy, even including recipes (sigh!).  The setting is a small town in Depression era Alabama and the protagonists are members of a garden club who take it upon themselves to investigate the death of a young woman in a suspicious car crash.  All of the usual tropes are present and although Albert writes as well or better than most, the story never came to life at all and I was not unhappy to see it end.  The current crop of mystery writers really don’t seem comfortable with writing mysteries as such, and what should be the center of the plot often feels more like a subplot, and while this isn’t as bad as most, it still felt like an afterthought at times. 8/2/10

 

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